What the Nickel Boys saw

Colson Whitehead's novel of racial injustice poleaxes the reader

September 04, 2019
Colson Whitehead in 2011
Colson Whitehead in 2011

The sense of mischief that led Colson Whitehead to write Zone One, a zombie yarn set in post-9/11 New York, was still just about present in his Pulitzer Prize-winning slavery novel, The Underground Railroad, which turned the metaphorical network cited by the title into an actual railway.

His new book suggests he’s given up on games. Set in 1960s Florida, it draws on the true case of a juvenile penal institution whose wards were abused and murdered in crimes that came under scrutiny only decades later, when an archaeological dig unearthed human remains on the site.

In the prologue, Elwood, the boss of a removals firm, reflects on his past after watching reports about the Florida reform school he was sent to. We take the ensuing story to be his own boyhood recollection, starting with his days as a pot-washer among older kitchen hands who exploit his enthusiasm to skive their own duties.

Elwood’s trusting nature proves most damaging when, in his late teens, he innocently hitches a lift with another black man driving a stolen car. The police flag the car down, and—for reasons never clearly stated—Elwood finds himself at the Nickel Academy, where he’s horrifically beaten by white staff.

Perhaps Whitehead leaves out what takes place with the police as Elwood is arrested because he’s telling his readers what they already know (or are ready to accept) about US justice. Every so often, he cuts away from the main narrative to show us the adult Elwood, married and successful. The contrast nags—how did things change? Whitehead’s decision to let slip how his story ends begins to seem undramatic, calling into question why he’s airing Elwood’s past at all.

But the discrepancy becomes the basis for a poleaxing twist that adds nuance to the novel’s racial politics, which initially seem to depend on generating sympathy for a hero who faces persecution by turning the other cheek—only for Whitehead to finally suggest that’s no way to survive.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Fleet, £16.99)